Best defenders of all time - ranked

  • Most successful teams of all time have been built on the game's greatest defenders
  • Legends like Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore and Paolo Maldini were the best in the world
  • Sergio Ramos and Giorgio Chiellini are among modern-day greats
Ramos is one of the greatest defenders ever
Ramos is one of the greatest defenders ever / Matthias Hangst/GettyImages

Defenders come in all different shapes and sizes.

The wondrous evolution in football tactics means mere ability isn't the only thing to take into account when ranking the best defenders in the world.

Here's 90min's list of the 25 greatest defenders ever.

25. Paul Breitner

Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner
Breitner (R) lifted the 1974 World Cup with West Germany / Getty Images/GettyImages

The bohemian Paul Breitner was a stylish operator on and off the pitch, with his strong political ideals seeing him garner quite the reputation in his homeland.

The German lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1974 and enjoyed perpetual success with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid - a move which seemed to compromise his leftist values given the Spanish club's links with General Franco.

Breitner was the best left-back of his day and finished second in Ballon d'Or voting in 1981.

24. Alan Hansen

Alan Hansen
Hansen was a stellar defender before his punditry days / Getty Images/GettyImages

You know him better as the pundit who said 'you can't win anything with kids' alongside other interesting takes on Match of the Day over the years, but back in the 80s, Alan Hansen was one of the best central defenders in the world.

As Liverpool's main man at the heart of their defence, Hansen won eight league titles and three European Cups at Anfield.

23. Jaap Stam

Jaap Stam
Stam crunched strikers in the Premier League / Michael Steele/GettyImages

Forwards around the world were terrified of Jaap Stam in his pomp.

The Dutch legend looked like he'd been forged by dwarves in Nidavellir but was somehow mobile enough to keep pace with the very best strikers in the game. In other words, Stam was a physical freak.

22. Jose Santamaria

Alfredo di Stefano, Jose Santamaria, Rogelio Dominguez
Santamaria led Real Madrid to a long list of honours during the Alfredo Di Stefano era / STAFF/GettyImages

Now merely known as the manager who oversaw Spain's disastrous 1982 World Cup by the majority of people, Jose Santamaria's illustrious playing career has been sort of forgotten.

And that's a real shame because, well, it was a pretty damn good playing career.

11 league titles, one domestic cup, one Intercontinental Cup and four (yes, four) European Cups. Big time.

21. Marcel Desailly

Marcel Desailly
Desailly played a key role in Milan's sinking of Barcelona's 'Dream Team' / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

While Laurent Blanc was the leader and brains of France's 1998 World Cup-winning defence, Marcel Desailly was the muscle. Blanc himself made that clear.

He said: "He is a monster! He is an absolute monster! He can play in defence or midfield, but I think he is better as a centre-back. In fact, I'm sure of that. He has so much quality. Forwards simply couldn't get past him because of his size, but he was smart and quick too."

20. Lilian Thuram

Lilian Thuram
Thuram was a versatile operator in defence / Stu Forster/GettyImages

The versatile Lilian Thuram boasted the attributes to thrive in any era. He really could do it all, impressing in various environments.

His brute strength and explosive athleticism meant it was ever so hard to bypass him one-v-one. Thuram was as aggressive as he was elegant and that combination meant he was appreciated in a land where elite defenders are produced at an unrelenting rate.

Thuram had success with both Parma and Juventus and was a staple of the France side that won back-to-back major tournaments between 1998 and 2000.

19. Daniel Passarella

Argentina Captain Daniel Passarella
Passarella captained Argentina to glory in 1978 / Steve Powell/GettyImages

Another pretty small centre-back who more than made up for it with his hops and being the best header of the ball of all time - according to Diego Maradona - Daniel Passarella captained Argentina to their first ever World Cup triumph.

He also scored a ridiculous 134 career goals in 451 games.

18. Ruud Krol

Krol was a flying full-back during the peak of Total Football / STAFF/GettyImages

The scintillating fluidity of Rinus Michels' 'Total Football' meant players had no choice but to be comfortable operating in different zones. Fixed positions were of a bygone era, with the Dutch playing a brand of football from a utopian future.

Johan Cruyff was the prominent force in an all-time great side, but Ruud Krol was the defensive lynchpin. He held together the dominant Ajax outfit of the 70s and the brilliant Dutch national team for 14 years, although World Cup glory eluded Krol and company.

17. John Terry

John Terry
Terry is one of the all-time great Premier League defenders / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

John Terry's reputation took several hits towards the end of his playing career and some are reluctant to place him among the true all-time greats as a result.

Chelsea supporters will undoubtedly be placing their eternal skipper towards the top of this list, but 17th is a fair enough spot in our view.

Terry is one of the greatest defenders England has ever produced, one who appreciated the art like an Italian, and was a prolific operator in the opposition's box.

16. Carlos Alberto

Carlos Alberto
Alberto scored one of the most iconic goals in World Cup history / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

Carlos Alberto's marauding brilliance down the right was a major feature of one of the greatest Brazil sides of all time.

Alberto's place in footballing immortality was cemented at the 1970 World Cup when he capped off the Selecao's sparkling tournament with a truly iconic moment.

He'll always be remembered as the scorer of the perfect goal.

15. Ashley Cole

Ashley Cole
Cole was dominant down the left flank during his pomp / Jamie McDonald/GettyImages

Another modern-day Chelsea hero with a bit of a bad boy reputation, some fairly hail Ashley Cole as the greatest left-back ever.

Cristiano Ronaldo may well be one of those advocates, as the Portuguese superstar labelled Cole his toughest opponent back in 2016.

"Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe. He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game."

Case made.

14. Giorgio Chiellini

Giorgio Chiellini
Nobody appreciated the art of defending more / Michael Regan/GettyImages

What makes Giorgio Chiellini one of the best is his sheer will to win, busting or breaking almost every inch of his body to do so.

In an exorbitant number of the 561 games he played for Juventus, Chiellini busted his head wide open, broke his nose, turned his knee, rolled his ankle and had abdominal influenza among other ailments.

He still played on, continued to perform at the highest level and dragged his team to famous win after famous win after famous win.

13. Ronald Koeman

Aguas, Ronald Koeman
Koeman was prolific from defence / Getty Images/GettyImages

Passarella's 134 goals are pretty impressive, but it's nothing compared to Ronald Koeman.

The Dutchman bagged an astonishing 253 career goals.

As a centre-back. 253.

12. Cafu

Cafu led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002 / PEDRO UGARTE/GettyImages

Historically, Brazil have rarely been in short supply of supremely gifted full-backs, and here's another.

Debate raged for years as to whether Cafu surpassed Carlos Alberto's legacy in his homeland, with the two right-backs each guiding their nations to World Cup glory.

It's certainly close between Cafu and Alberto, with the former lacking the iconic, legacy-defining moment Alberto produced in 1970.

However, Cafu's ventures in Europe stand him apart in our book. Having won plenty at the start of the 90s with Sao Paulo, Cafu ended his career as a two-time Serie A winner and Champions League victor with Milan.

11. Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro
Cannavaro inspired Italy to 2006 World Cup success / Simon M Bruty/GettyImages

Throughout his long and storied career, Fabio Cannavaro was always great, but he's this high on this list and as fondly remembered as he is for one game in particular.

That game: Italy vs. Germany, 4 July 2006.

A game in which Cannavaro put in the greatest defensive performance in history to lead Italy to a World Cup final.

And that's not even an exaggeration.

On 4 July 2006, Cannavaro essentially won the Ballon d'Or for one generation-defining performance, becoming only the second defender in history to win the award. What. A. Player.

10. Philipp Lahm

Philipp Lahm
The intelligent German was adored by his managers / Alex Grimm/GettyImages

Philipp Lahm was nothing short of a manager's dream.

Versatile, tough, technically proficient and mightily intelligent, it's no surprise Lahm, who captained Germany to World Cup victory in 2014, was hailed by Pep Guardiola as one of the best players ever.

"He is one of the most fantastic players I ever trained in my life and one of the most intelligent," Guardiola said after Lahm announced his retirement. "Football is going to miss one of the best players ever. He can play in 10 positions, no problems because he understands the game perfectly."

9. Gaetano Scirea

Soccer - 1986 FIFA World Cup - Round of 16 - France vs Italy
Scirea was a classy defender / Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/GettyImages

Gaetano Scirea was the epitome of everything good about Juventus.

A born winner who personified 'Lo Stile Juve', Scirea is fondly remembered as one of the most talented and likeable footballers of his generation. 

8. Dani Alves

Dani Alves
Alves played for a great Barcelona side / Hector Vivas/GettyImages

Alves is one of the most decorated footballers ever but now lives in disgrace after being found guilty of sexual assault.

7. Roberto Carlos

Roberto Carlos
Roberto Carlos had a penchant for the spectacular / Guang Niu/GettyImages

Roberto Carlos was more than just a bloke who had a penchant for pulling off the spectacular. The Brazilian could strike a ball as well as anyone, executing techniques even the very best couldn't pull off.

Alongside his supreme ball-striking, Carlos was an industrious performer down the left who rarely mistimed a tackle.

He was the ultimate wing-back and you may well spot him in your local Wetherspoons.

6. Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos
The ultimate sh*thouse / Angel Martinez/GettyImages

You either love him or absolutely hate him, but there's no denying Sergio Ramos is a bloody good centre-back.

And even if you want to deny it, let's just take a look at the following list of accolades.

- Five La Liga titles. 
- Two Ligue 1 titles.
- Two Copa del Reys.
- Four UEFA Champions Leagues. 
- Four FIFA Club World Cups. 
- 2010 FIFA World Cup. 
- 2008 and 2012 UEFA European Championships. 
- 10 FIFPro World XIs. 
- Eight UEFA Team of the Years. 
- Two-time UEFA Defender of the Season.

5. Alessandro Nesta

Alessandro Nesta
Nesta made everything look easy / Massimo Cebrelli/GettyImages

If this list was based on pure natural defensive talent, Alessandro Nesta might have nabbed the number one spot.

Put simply, Nesta was an extraordinary footballer.

On his day, he could mark any forward out of any game and still have time to come out of defence with the ball and probably set up a goal with a defence-splitting pass.

The only problem was the injuries. There were a lot of them and they usually came at the worst possible time, the 2006 World Cup a prime example.

4. Bobby Moore

Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters, George Cohen
Moore is England's greatest ever defender / Keystone/GettyImages

We could sit here and wax lyrical about Bobby Moore, but instead let's allow someone with a little more clout to do the honours. Here's Pele on England's World Cup-winning captain.

"I met a lot of good defenders I played against. The difference was I played all over the world. Every place I played not with my team Santos or with Brazil, always I have one player to follow me and to stay with me. Then it was not easy because I get excellent players all over the world...but I think I can mention two in the whole of my career.

"I can mention Beckenbauer who used to play for Germany and Bobby Moore when we played against England. I think those two players. Different style because Beckenbauer used to play more to control the game but man to man, the best was Bobby Moore. No doubt."

3. Franco Baresi

Franco Baresi of Italy
Baresi was a master of his craft / Simon Bruty/GettyImages

Franco Baresi is the best Italian central defender of all time.

Which says it all really.

And he is the best Italian central defender of all time because of how stupidly good he was for AC Milan. As the leader of the club's defence for the best part of 20 years, Baresi was a central figure during their most golden of golden eras.

2. Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini
Maldini was world-class in two positions / Etsuo Hara/GettyImages

Baresi may well be Italy's greatest ever centre-back, but Paolo Maldini lays claim to being his country's greatest ever defender.

Why? Well, while Baresi was truly elite at the heart of Milan's backline for so many years, Maldini was imperious as a central defender and a full-back.

The handsome Italian started out as a do-it-all left-back who added distinct security to an already stout backline that reached new levels of majesty under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello.

Maldini's stellar performance in Baresi's absence during the notorious 1994 Champions League final that Barcelona was supposed to dominate and win foreshadowed his eventual evolution into a master craftsman at centre-back.

The loyal one-club man racked up 647 Serie A appearances for Milan, lifting 26 trophies which included five European Cups and seven Scudetti.

1. Franz Beckenbauer

Beckenbauer led Germany to World Cup glory as a player and manager / STF/GettyImages

This can't be a surprise, can it? Of course Franz Beckenbauer is number one on this list. He's the fourth greatest footballer of all time and the best defender by an absolute mile.

He won and captained West Germany to the 1974 FIFA World Cup, won three consecutive European Cups, two Ballons d'Or - everyone else in the top 25 has won one combined.

Der Kaiser. The king of German football. The king of centre backs. The king of Michael Keaton lookalikes.